“Well you know, there’s a rumor that Juliette Derricotte was gay,” Marybeth Gasman offhandedly remarked about the African-American educator whose death after a traffic accident in 1931 sparked a national investigation into racial segregation in southern hospitals.
Gasman then went on to the next topic of conversation as we chatted about our research outside the Fisk archives. Gasman was there to further her research and advocacy regarding the contemporary challenges facing HBCUs. I was there to find evidence about Juliette Derricotte and Mabel Byrd in the archives for my book project on black women’s internationalism and an article I published in 2012 on interracialism at Fisk in 1930. Gasman’s first book had been a biography of Charles S. Johnson, a sociologist at Fisk who knew Derricotte and Byrd. When I finally thought to ask her where she had heard this rumor, she said she had run across it in an archive during her research for the Johnson book, but did not remember where. A Vanderbilt graduate student spent the fall combing the Fisk archives to find that evidence for me but found nothing that revealed what Derricotte or her friends and colleagues thought about her sexuality. However, I do have one letter where Derricotte described her complicated thoughts about romance and men.
I am always fascinated by the inner lives and emotions of the people I study, perhaps in part because those very topics have been so much more difficult to learn about black women. Black women did not have the power or privilege to create as many documents; the documents they did create were neglected by archivists long after white women’s papers were seen as worthy of preservation. As we know from Darlene Clark Hine, Evelynn Hammonds, Anastasia Curwood, Ann duCille and other scholars, expressing thoughts about sexuality, even in the context of marriage, was fraught for African-American men and women. Black women shielded many aspects of their private lives in their public dealings with white people in order to protect themselves from racist stereotypes; their hesitation to ever discuss sexuality was, as we know, a response to the Mammy and Jezebel stereotypes that circulated in popular culture. Furthermore, as Estelle Freedman underlined in her biography of Miriam van Waters, once homosexuality became viewed as a psychological disorder, women who made lives with other women sometimes destroyed the evidence of domestic lives that could cause them, and their work, to be publicly defamed.
Archival sources about African-American women can also be affected by racism. The collections of Derricotte letters that include the one I am examining here were found long after her death by a white part-time journalist, part-time antique dealer in an unkempt antique store. The box containing them had been knocked over and they were falling to the floor. Thank goodness he took an interest and instead of stepping on them, began to pick them up, read them, and become fascinated by her story. They sat in his basement for many years before he decided he was not the one to write her story; instead he donated them to the Ole Miss archives.
Derricotte wrote the letter I have reproduced here to her friend and YWCA co-worker Jane Saddler in 1924 during an Atlantic crossing, returning from a hectic summer of travel throughout Europe. Derricotte concluded her letter to Saddler with her only musings on romance left to us readers. She asked her friend,
As for men—what’s the use? Why worry?–yet I can’t say those same words for the life of me when my ‘emotional strain’ predominates. I have been wanting the companionship of a man all summer. Many of my experiences have called for men and yet I haven’t been free to even write one what I am thinking. I dream of what married life may mean and then hear Mrs. P say ‘Men can worry the life out of you if you’ll let them; don’t rush into getting married.’ Then Yergan will say ‘Do you know that I actually forget that I am married sometime?’ And then my thoughts turn to some of the married men I know who want for one reason or another to renew old ties or create new ones—maybe because something isn’t being fulfilled in the present marital relationships or maybe because they are wild and then I think of my moods and wonder if I wouldn’t ultimately drive a husband of mine to the same thing—what would I do?
The bad behavior of men troubled her, but that was not all that troubled her. Even as she idealized the emotional intimacy that a heterosexual marriage might promise, Derricotte also wondered whether she could
go on living as a woman and not seek, (I hope a seeking with a refined finish) a companionship with man. This creative impulse in woman is, I believe ever incomplete without a man. I can even see how the absence of children may still not be a hindrance, thus eliminating the physical satisfaction element—but that something in the religious experiences of a man and woman must be united to make the whole. There is no doubt but that our greatest difficulty is the physical attraction. You have gone far ahead in that I know and I long to go with you in that but my dear I don’t seem to see where I’ll get for I still want to be kissed! I know deep down in myself that a kiss can satisfy only a momentary whim and that real love may be most silent yet very surely felt, yet I still want to be kissed? How shall I ever solve that deep, philosophical problem!!?? I have been serious long enough and anyway this kind of talk doesn’t get far unless you have somebody to break down your arguments for you—so wait till I see thee again.
Like other female progressives in the early twentieth century, such as New Dealer Molly Dewson and other colleagues in the YWCA, Derricotte worried that her desire for physical affection and a nuclear family would undermine her ability to prosper in her vocation. Many of Derricotte’s colleagues also believed unmarried women could maintain a career, but a married woman would have to give it up.
Derricotte could see a life for herself without children, but she was not sure she could see a life without love. Do these musings about men challenge the rumor Gasman related to me that Derricotte was a lesbian? Perhaps, but she was not unaware that loving relationships between women were an alternative to marriage. She certainly knew lesbians: white Canadian Margaret Wrong had first introduced her to international work and white American Winnifred Wygal was a good friend in the YWCA. This letter does not discount that she could long to be kissed by a woman too, but was unable to put that taboo thought down on paper. On the other hand, although Derricotte spent most of her life in a vibrant circle of women, and most of her friendships were with women, she did value male friendship and may have wanted some of those relationships to become romantic.
Paradoxically, Derricotte’s friendships with men may have been so strong because they precluded romantic or sexual attachment. One of her intimates, Max Yergan, wrote after her tragic death: “I shall, above everything else, remember her for her quality of true friendship; such a quality is so rare, so necessary, and so seldom found in any real and enduring sense, that Juliette Derricotte’s conception and practice of it constitute one of her unique gifts to our time. Our race could ill afford to lose such a gifted member; the larger human and spiritual cause which she served transcending race and nation, is now without one of its strongest and proved advocates; the realm of friendship has in its ranks an empty place because we mourn the untimely death of this sweet and gentle soul.” Perhaps he recognized her qualities as a friend and colleague precisely because there was no possibility of a romance between them.
Another thought troubled Derricotte beyond her status as a single woman – as she confessed to Jane Saddler, what would she face on her return from Europe? Again she discussed love, but this time in the context of how it was deformed by American racism. Do these thoughts suggest veiled, romantic thoughts towards her female correspondent? Were her difficulties entirely a question of heterosexual love, or does the first portion of the letter express more complex, and veiled, feelings towards Saddler? She could have the “unconquerable peace of one’s soul” on the European side of the water, Derricotte wrote, even when she thought “of the difficulties I’ll have to face on that side and the spirit in which I can face them.” She asked Saddler,
what will there be in my soul when I actually face them on that side? There are moments when I am sure that I can love and not be loved, that I can give everything and care naught about the return and then too comes the unconquerable peace of the soul, and yet there are times when I want to be loved and accompanying it is great torment of soul for wanting love always seems to bring conflicts—either of ideals, or persons, or after-effects. When I share the fellowship of many races without regard to color or creed I find an unconquerable peace of soul and I am very sure that it is the peace which will solve our problem, and yet the first act of discrimination produces a destructive hatred inside of me. Here in these pine woods with beauty and quiet and peace there is an unconquerable peace of soul and I know that the Spirit which hovers here is my guiding spirit, is my Life, my All—In the rush of doing things, of getting things done, of being impatient—there is no peace of soul instead there is great restlessness of soul.
Here, Derricotte is speaking most directly about racism; her attempt to respond to insults with love was a form of non-violent resistance. Perhaps, however, she was speaking indirectly about other forms of discrimination as well. Derricotte feared that the peace she had found in Europe would dissipate as soon as she set foot on the shores of the United States. But had geographical distance given her relief from more intimate and romantic conflicts as well? Whatever else she knew or did not know about her return to the United States, she closed the letter by anticipating the joy of seeing Saddler again; “I think I shall jump overboard when I get a glimpse of thee.”